Although the heart of historical romance lies in the regency period, some of my favorite romance novels of all time are Sherry Thomas’ late Victorian historicals. They, along with Tessa Dare’s Spindle Cove series, were my first introduction to historical romance, so of course they hold a special place in my heart.
There’s something so fascinating about the decades of the Victorian era (1837-1901). It’s this period of amazing social and scientific change all set against a backdrop of truly mind-blowing economic disparity. Although romance novels are often set in glittery ballrooms and grand country estates, there’s a world of working poor, servants, merchants, and social climbers that only sometimes make it on the page in the books we love to read. Ruth Goodman provides a window into this world in How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life.
I know, I know, this is not a romance novel review, but if you, like me, live and breathe for historical romance, you will ADORE this intimate look into Victorian life. Organized by period of the day (from waking up to tea time to closing the bedroom door and everything in between), How to Be a Victorian focuses on the domestic lives of all social classes from the early, mid, and late Victorian era. It’s a tremendous undertaking, but historian Ruth Goodman makes it seem effortless. The book just flows from one page to the next with an almost voyeuristic-like approach that will leave you flipping pages late into the night.
From Victorian era hairsprays and tooth powders to the intricacies (and amazingly difficult work) of laundry, Goodman shares not only historical accounts but her own experiences living the Victorian life as a historical reenactor. She has this uncanny ability to share, what to our modern sensibilities are deeply troubling aspects of life–persistent hunger, child labor, dangerous work, and gender inequality–in a way that isn’t shocking or sensationalistic. Her approach is matter-of-fact but at the same time quite respectful. Life, in many ways, for many people, was hard, and Goodman doesn’t let us forget that.
Yet there are definitely moments of levity. Her detailed descriptions of Victorian exercises for ladies (complete with illustrations!) made me want to turn in my gym membership and the details of men’s facial hair fashions could put even the most hipster dude to shame. Goodman also covers the gruesome details of Victorian medicine, including the opiate-based concoctions that cured everything from “female problems” to infant teething pain, which definitely made me appreciate my primary care physician. You’ll find the answer to almost every question about Victorian life in Goodman’s writing.
How to Be a Victorian is the perfect book for anyone interested in learning more about the daily lives of the non-elite. It’s background for your next Victorian romance novel, but it’s also a wonderful read all on its own. Pick it up!